Like the Brooklyn Raga Massive, the Navatman Music Collective are a semi-rotating cast of some of New York’s most innovative Indian instrumental and vocal talent. Just the fact that they’re the only carnatic choir in this hemisphere attests to the group’s adventurousness. Bands have been making rock music out of ancient carnatic themes since the days of the Beatles and Grateful Dead, and then there’s Bollywood, but Indian classical ensembles typically have no use for harmony because it doesn’t exist in the tradition.
When the Navatman Music Collective harmonize, their sound is lush, and otherworldly, and unlike any other choir in the world. Other times, they’ll all sing a single melody line in unison, or with the men and women at each end of an octave. The group are playing the final day of their enticingly eclectic Drive East Festival of Indian music and dance at 2 PM on August 26 at Dixon Place; $20 tix are available along with numerous multiple-show deals and full-festival passes.
The group’s debut album, An Untimely Joy is streaming at youtube. They open strikingly with An Ode in Eight Verses, a stately processional set to an uneasily melismatic, Arabic-tinged mode over an oscillating drone and mysterious bell accents.
The second track, Offering (an excerpt from raga Gavati) features percussionist Rajna Swaminathan and violinist Anjna Swaminathan, cantering along on a tricky but elegantly boomy rhythm: the interweave of voices is rapturously kaleidoscopic. The movie theme Sweet Infatuation showcases the ensemble’s core mens’ and womens’ voices, bandleader Roopa Mahadevan alongside Kamini Dandapani, Vignesh Ravichandran, Janani Kannan, Preetha Raghu, Kalpana Gopalakrishnan, Shraddha Balasubramaniam and Shiv Subramaniam. They bolster a balmy, conversational duet between Subramanian and Mahadevan over airy violin and bubbly flute.
The ensemble sing the album’s most epic. majestically kinetic, unpredictably serpentine piece, Summer Love in unison, answered by dancing flute and violin in places. A Blue Note puts the strings of similarly innovative Indian trio Karavika front and center in an acerbically chromatic, moodily enveloping piece, the swooping, melismatic violin of Trina Basu anchored by Amali Premawardhana’s stark cello and Perry Wortman’s bass, taken upward by the choir’s resolute intensity. The album winds up with the playful Urban Gamak, Mahadevan and Subramaniam trading shivery microtonal riiffs over a steady, swaying backdrop.
Fans of Indian music will hear things they never heard before on this magical, energetic album; those whose taste in choral music gravitates toward adventurous composers like Arvo Part or Caroline Shaw should also check it out. And the group are amazing live.